Friday, September 30, 2005

Baroneblog sez:

Republicans have certain structural advantages in our nearly equally divided American politics. George W. Bush carried 31 states that elect 62 of 100 senators, and he carried 255 of 435 congressional districts while winning the popular vote by only 51 to 48 percent.
But the indictment yesterday of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay points to a structural advantage for the Democrats: They have majorities in most of the counties containing the state capitals of our largest states. That means that political corruption cases are likely to be handled by prosecutors, judges, and juries that are largely Democratic.

- Michael Barone

India - a 22d Century USA ?

(September 2005) - In just four decades, India is projected to be the most populous nation on Earth.

India's middle class alone will be 983 million strong by 2015. And, one half of India's population is still under the age of 25, a powerful dynamic. India's demographics alone may be its greatest asset.
This is a young and increasingly wealthy nation - India's net income has doubled in the last 10 years.
Everything is more affordable. In fact, India is the second largest mobile phone market on Earth. It is also home to the world's second largest two-wheeler market.

Driven by the information technology and outsourcing booms, more and more foreign companies are setting up shop in India. Five million square feet of retail space is being developed, and over $25 billion will be spent on urban housing.

A trip to a real estate agent's office in Chennai, India, was quite an eye-opener.
Unclear titles, poor building standards and ridiculous tenancy laws have historically plagued Indian real estate. That is why foreign investors have stayed away.
Today, Indians maintain better records and go to great lengths to ensure that the title on a property is clear. The government is even considering computerization of land records.
Foreign direct investment is now allowed in real estate. And the sector is truly coming of age - financial institutions have filed for permission to introduce $1 billion worth of real estate mutual funds in India.

In India, the ratio of the total value of mortgages to the GDP is only 2%, whereas it is 52% in the United States.
This means that in the United States, for every $100 we produce, we owe $52 in mortgages. Indians, however, owe just $2.

- Initial reporting by Sala Kannan - [heavily edited by me].

While I believe that America's future is particularly bright, at least through the middle of the 21st century, it does seem as though India's growth could be a decades-long sustained boom, with a much faster average rate of economic growth than the U.S. over that time.

Assuming, of course, that India can avoid a nuclear war with Pakistan or China, or a long and ruinous conventional war with China.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

An Alternative Look at the Future of Oil Production

The Saudis are the "central bank of oil," right?
So how come the central bank is scrounging for loose change under the couch cushions?

In August came news that Saudi Arabia hired five Rowan jackup oil rigs for drilling offshore oil wells on a three year contract. Those rigs are currently under contract in the Gulf of Mexico, so that means Saudi Arabia outbid somebody to get those rigs – and rig rates have already run up to obscenely high levels – 30% to 50% more than a year ago.

Drilling for oil underwater is very expensive. You'd expect the Saudis to be drilling out their cheapest oil first. Don't they have a desert full of this stuff? So why are they suddenly digging deep for underwater oil, and willing to pay a premium to do it?

Unless... maybe the Saudis don't have as much oil as they say they do.

We already know that the Saudis have confessed that OPEC won't be able to meet western oil demand in 10 to 15 years. I'm starting to think they might come up short a lot sooner than that.

Are the Saudis lying? Well, at least it seems like they're not telling the whole truth. What's more, I believe there's a whole lot our own government isn't telling us. I'll get to that in a moment. First, some ugly facts...

· The world uses a BILLION barrels of oil every 12 days. Do we find a billion barrels of oil every 12 days? NO! In fact, if everything goes perfectly, we'll find just 30 million barrels of oil in the same time period. If things go badly, we'll find less. Much less.

· The global depletion rate runs at least 5% a year, perhaps much higher, as once reliable sources of oil are in serious decline. Oil production in Britain fell the steepest of any country last year, with production in the once-prolific North Sea falling by 10% (230,000 barrels per day) last year ... Production in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay has fallen 75% from its peak in 1987 ... Mexico's production is declining so quickly it will have to start importing oil in the next 10 years!

· The U.S. Energy Information Agency has fallen in line with the International Energy Agency and admits that oil demand will exceed supply starting in the fourth quarter of this year. Total world demand is expected to be 86.4 million barrels per day, according to the EIA, while total world supply is expected to be 85.4 million barrels per day. The EIA ups the ante by saying there will be a shortfall in the first quarter of 2006 as well.

Publicly, the White House urges calm and predicts that oil prices will retreat from their current high levels. But privately, the U.S. government is quietly planning to add to existing oil reserves at a furious pace.

Squirreled away in new energy legislation is a directive to increase the Strategic Petroleum Reserve from 700 million barrels (70 days' supply of imports) to ONE BILLION BARRELS. They're adding to the SPR when oil prices are sky-high. What are they afraid of?

A confidential source in the Department of Energy gave me the scoop on the addition to the SPR. This stunning new directive was placed inside the 1,724-page Energy Policy Act of 2005 without any fanfare whatsoever – it's hidden in plain sight. And the mainstream media is too busy going to beltway cocktail parties to notice.

This 42% jump in reserves is so huge, the government doesn't even have a place to put it all – yet. The plan is to fill the SPR to capacity with a minimum of market disruption or undue influence on the market, blah-blah.
If you're planning to fill the SPR when oil is over $60 per barrel, you aren't planning on getting that oil on the cheap.

I don't know what is motivating the Bush administration to boost petroleum reserves. But I do know that two oil men are in the White House right now. They probably have access to raw data on America's oil fields – including depletion rates – that the rest of us don't. Again, what are they afraid of? I'm certainly not going to buy the "don't' worry, be happy," line peddled by the White House.

Still, there are plenty of people still willing to push the government line. An analyst recently quoted in a Bloomberg story tried to push the idea that oil is still cheap, explaining: "A barrel of Starbucks latte would cost you $1,500, compared to a barrel of crude, even at $66 a barrel."

Ri-i-i-i-i-ight! Starbucks coffee is a luxury – that's why they can charge so much for it. Is oil a luxury? Not right now. But it might be down the road.

I believe we're careening toward a good ol' fashioned oil panic. I believe the government knows a lot more than it's letting on. And I believe anyone who doesn't invest for the coming energy emergency is a bloody fool.

- By Sean Brodrick, Investment Director of the Sovereign Society

While I agree that one might make a nice return, perhaps even become stinkin' rich, by betting that oil will become permanently more dear, and that oil exploration and production companies will make fat profits, this is a rather excited analysis of potential future oil shortages - not surprising, since this is an excerpt from a sales pitch.

The World may indeed use 30 billion barrels of oil per year, and the EIA and IEA may be predicting shortfalls in supply, but that is in part due to the price of crude oil being (ahem) fairly reasonably priced. If oil were to go to
$ 90/bbl, Americans would complain loud and long - and pay.
Most of the rest of the world would conserve as best they could, and switch to alternative fuels wherever possible. That, combined with no-doubt-modest American conservation efforts, would quickly bring demand in line with production.

That 30 billion barrels in oil consumption per year isn't the CORE demand, it's also the result of conspicuous consumption by Americans who don't find paying for $ 60/bbl oil to be particularly taxing, and as such is a modestly elastic amount of demand.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Manslaughter Case Opens Against Concorde

PARIS (Sept. 27) - France opened a manslaughter case against the former head of the Concorde program in connection with the 2000 crash of the supersonic jet at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, judicial officials said Tuesday. [The Air France Concorde burst into flames just after takeoff on July 25, 2000, killing 113 people].

Henri Perrier is the first of four former executives of Aerospatiale -- a French plane maker now part of the European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. -- summoned by investigating judge Christophe Regnard.
Three other officials from France's civil aviation agency have also been called. [...]

Two investigations [...] concluded that a titanium "wear strip" that fell from a Continental Airlines DC-10 onto the runway caused a Concorde tire to burst, propelling rubber debris that perforated the supersonic plane's fuel tanks.
Continental was placed under investigation in March for alleged manslaughter and involuntary injury. French prosecutors contended that the carrier violated U.S. aviation rules by using titanium in a part of the plane that normally called for use of aluminum, which is softer.
However, the judicial inquiry, made public last year, also determined that the jet's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock -- a risk known since 1979. The planes [were] retired in 2003.

See also the comments in "Faux News" below.

Manslaughter seems excessive, but some consequence for those who decided that "good enough" was good enough seems fair.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The story of the moral

Divine command theory

Many people believe that things are morally good or bad, or morally obligatory, permissible, or prohibited, solely because of God’s will or commands.

Ideas of this kind are known as examples of ‘divine command theory’.

Divine command theory is attractive for various reasons, which I discuss below, But even leaving aside problems about people disagreeing about what exactly is God’s will, the many different religions in the world etc, it is conceptually flawed.

The big conceptual flaw was pointed out a long time ago, most famously by Plato, in what has become known as ‘the Euthyphro Dilemma’. The Euthyphro Dilemma is a simple, nasty little question which gets divine command theorists into all sorts of bother.

The Euthryphro Dilemma

The dilemma can be posed to the divine command theorist like this: “Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?”

Or like this:

Taking x to be any act agreed to be morally wrong (eg. child murder), then

(Horn 1) does God say that x is wrong because it is wrong; or
(Horn 2) is x wrong only because God says it is?

The divine command theorist must reject the first horn immediately, since if God only decrees that x is wrong because it is wrong, then there must be something inherently wrong about x. So we don’t need God for x to be wrong, morals don’t come solely from God, and divine command theory is incorrect.

So he must concentrate on the second horn: x is wrong because God says it is.

Problems with Horn 2

Unlike the first horn, Horn 2 is logically compatible with divine command theory, but it leads to some awkward problems. In order of increasing awkwardness, these include:

The emptiness problem: if x is good because God says x is good, then the normal moral claims that believers make about God are empty tautologies. Statements such as “God is good”, “God’s commands are good” and “God’s actions are good” are trivial, true but devoid of content.

The problem of arbitrariness: if x is wrong only because God says it is, then God must have decided this on a pure whim. It must have been a 50/50 toss up. So murdering random children could just have easily been right as wrong. This must be so because if God had any reason to favour x being wrong rather than right, there must be something about x which would lead him to favour it. So morals wouldn’t come solely from God’s will and we’re back to the first horn of the dilemma, and divine command theory is incorrect.

This problem leads us to….

The problem of abhorrent commands: If x is wrong only because God says it is, then we’re open to the possibility that literally anything, from rape to genocide, would become morally right if God willed it. Yet a simple thought experiment suggests that most of us, if told by God that child murder was now a moral imperative and we ought to do it as much as possible, would reject God’s command. We’d say: ‘God’s got it wrong this time. Child murder is just plain wrong, whatever He says.” We’d be looking elsewhere for our morals. And if we can look elsewhere for our morals, then divine command theory must be incorrect.

Attempts to answer these problems

A simple strategy for the divine command theorist is just to accept these problems. For example, William of Ockham (he of the Razor) just accepted that yes, God could change His mind tomorrow, make virtue a vice and vice a virtue and if He decreed that child murder was a moral imperative, then we’d all have to get out there and start slaughtering the kids.

But unsurprisingly, most divine command theorists would rather avoid this conclusion. They therefore attempt to find a Third Way: to show that this is a ‘false dilemma’ – offering only two alternatives, when in fact there are three.

When I’ve come across Third Way explanations, they have all been presented with so much tortuous theological subtlety and nuance that I have initially been left quite baffled, but essentially they tend to boil down to any of three variations:

Third Way v1: God’s nature. This is the Thomas Aquinas answer, and goes along the lines of: moral goodness is an essential part of God’s nature, of what it means to be God, and behaving morally brings us closer to God’s nature. Thus morality is not willed by God, but it is part of God.

The trouble with this being that once the theological debris is cleared and you understand what it is they’re getting at, you find yourself right back at the first horn. If goodness is part of God’s nature, then goodness is not something God has any control over, and divine command theory is incorrect.

Third Way v2: Levels of morality. There are ‘levels of goodness’, so that what God tells us is moral is contingent upon his decision, but there might be another level of morality above that: a ‘morality of the Gods’, which God can choose to refer to. (This was Orrin Judd’s argument). This take might conceivably eliminate the arbitrariness problem and the emptiness problem. But it also seems to have the worst of both worlds: there exists morality beyond the control of God (impaling us on the first horn). And the morality we’re interested in – human morality – is once more at the whim of God, and we’re still exposed to the problem of abhorrent commands.

Third Way v3: Necessary versus contingent morality. This has been argued by philosopher Richard Swinburne. According to his theory, God can decide to create the world in many different ways, each of which grounds a particular set of contingent values; with regard to these, then, the divine command theory is the correct explanation. Certain values, however, such as the immorality of murder or rape, are necessary, and hold in all possible worlds. So it makes no sense to say that God could have created them differently

Again, this runs into problems. First, how can we maintain a clear distinction between necessary and contingent moral values? Second, it seems to considerably weaken God’s ability to determine morality, and thus impale itself on the first horn.

The fundamental conceptual problem with Divine Command Theory

Wittgenstein is a trendy but notoriously elusive philosopher. But if people have heard anything about him, they’ve often heard of his ‘Private Language Argument’

The crux of the Private Language Argument is that linguistic utterances can only have any meaning if there are rules. And rules only make sense if there is more than one user of the rules. In other words, it takes two to tango. Suppose I were to keep a private diary of my sensations, and upon having a sensation, I call it ‘S’, and then every time afterwards that I have this sensation I say ‘That was S’. What have I achieved? I can neither be right or wrong about calling it S, because without some sort of objectively agreed rules about using ‘S’, there is no criteria for correctness. I cannot agree rules by myself.

There are parallels here with divine command theory. A single rational being cannot originate consistent moral rules, if He himself is both the originator of the rules and of the rationale by which they are to be judged. It doesn’t carry any meaning for God to say ‘Murder is wrong’ if He is both the source of the command, and of the meaning of ‘wrong’. Consistent rules only have any meaning if they are used, and used by more than one rational being.

Why divine command theory is nonetheless attractive

Divine command theorists want two perfectly understandable things. Firstly, they want some firm, objective grounding for morality that makes absolute moral relativism impossible.

Second, they want final justice. They want the bad guys who got away with it in this life to get their comeuppance in the next, and the good guys who suffered to get a reward. And with final justice comes deterrence against immoral behaviour, and incentive towards good behaviour.

Where morals really come from

Unfortunately, ‘God says it’ doesn’t do the first job. Conceptually it makes no sense, as the Euthyphro dilemma shows, and practically it is useless – throughout the world, within a religion, even within your local church nobody remotely agrees about everything that God wants.

So will anything do the job to perfection? Possibly not. Yet we all make moral judgements, and we all seem to pretty much agree about the biggies (murder, rape, theft etc), and nobody with any sense likes free-for-all relativism (ie. if p thinks x is right, then x must be right). How can this be?

‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are adjectives we apply to actions, behaviours and people, using our own moral judgements. We can apply them correctly or incorrectly, just as we can correctly or incorrectly apply adjectives like “red” or “black” to billiard balls.

These moral judgements probably come from various sources, including: an innate sense developed in evolution, manifesting itself in empathy and remorse; parental teaching; societal and religious instruction; reasoning; and above all, what works to enable us to get along together.

What makes it correct or incorrect to apply ‘good’ or ‘evil’? What is the ‘grounding’ for these judgements, if we all make them using our own moral sense? A similar thing to what makes it correct or incorrect to call that ball “red”: humans have agreed it in order to get along and understand each other.

Does this mean that morality doesn’t exist? No, it exists - but perhaps it’s not ‘floating in the breeze’ as the divine command theorist.

Does it mean that morality is purely relativistic? No. Somebody who thinks an instance of murder is ‘right’, is as incorrect as a colourblind person who calls that red ball ‘blue’, even if he sees it as blue. He just doesn’t get it: he doesn't understand the rules. There are immoral or amoral people out there. We can identify them and we call the worst ‘sociopaths’ and we lock them up.

Without God, is there anything ‘solid’ enough to stop me behaving immorally? Yes – such as my conscience and the threat of punishment by society.

So it is perfectly possible to have a solid grounding for objective morality without relying on divine command. Indeed, that is how it works.

As for final justice, sadly here we can’t help the divine command theorist. That’s just the way it is: bad guys don’t get their comeuppance in the next life. It’s a pity but there it is.

But what really bugs divine command theorists…
…is the idea that if divine command theory is wrong, then morally speaking, anything goes. We’re in a big free-for-all. To which the answer is, obviously, look around you: it is wrong and anything doesn’t go.

To which the divine command theorist will reply: but if it were widely believed that divine command theory is wrong, then anything would go.

To which the answer is: speak for yourself.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

History Points to More Jobs

If history repeats itself, [...] job growth for much of the rest of the year should be robust. [...]

Since 1945, the average number of jobs created in [...] September, which has the third-best monthly average, [is] 148,600, and in November, which comes in second, [is] 151,600. October, however, has been the second- worst month for new jobs, at 107,300. December is middling - in sixth place, with an average of 135,500. (The best month, by the way, is March, at 161,300.) [...]

For the last 12 months, the average monthly forecast has been 184,600, while the average of the actual initial monthly reports has been 172,400, or 6.6 percent less. But the good news is that in five of the first six months this year, the number of new jobs grew when the initial reports were later revised.


Obviously, Katrina and Rita will be a drag on job growth, but even after their effect, we might see another 400,000 jobs created by the end of the year - barring another Category 4 or 5 hurricane slamming into a major city, of course.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Faux News

In case it was not already available, ironclad proof that 24/7 news has achieved the impossible came with coverage of JetBlue Flight 292.

What would that impossible thing be?

A self generating perpetual vacuum. A space completely devoid of anything remotely approaching factual content.

For those of you in the viewing audience lucky enough to avoid exposure to such a dangerous vacuum, a little background is in order.

Flight 292, an Airbus A-320 with 145 people on board, originating out of Burbank, CA, suffered a nose gear steering failure, which resulted in the nose gear wheels being cocked completely -- and irrevocably -- sideways. The crew made a low pass by the tower to confirm the problem, then orbited near LAX to burn down fuel.

Fox News, slavishly following the dictum "if it bleeds, it leads," lept into turbo-bloviation mode, spewing forth vacuous speculation and parading a series of experts (a term which, in Fox News speak, apparently means anyone who might, but not necessarily, have any knowledge about anything whatsoever) injecting their own load of fragrant, steaming, hysterical, nonsense.

Distilled, this is what that load of nonsense amounted to: This is bad. It is really, really, bad. The nose gear will collapse. The nose gear will get torn from the airplane. The nose gear might cause the airplane to veer off the runway and cause bad, really, really, bad things to happen.

Now all that badness is bad enough, but this particular aircraft has an on board entertainment system allowing the passengers to watch this coverage of which they are a part. According to an AP story the next day, some passengers were horrified:

"It was absolutely terrifying, actually." [One passenger, on hearing] worst-case scenarios from the TV News reports, started taking swigs from another passenger's vodka tonic.

"They were telling us there could be a crash landing, the gear could be torn off, there could be a fire. The gravity of the situation was much worse than any of us assumed."
Well, no.

Had Fox News bothered to talk to a pilot this is what they would have heard: On landing, when the nose gear touches down, the tires will skid. Then, very quickly, they will fail. There will be smoke from the tires, and sparks from the wheels. The landing will, absent these visuals, be completely normal in every respect. So much so, in fact, that the passengers would not, if they hadn't already been told, notice anything out of the ordinary.

Of course, while being a completely accurate depiction of the upcoming events, this suffers the rather severe shortcoming of filling that entire hour long fact-vacuum in roughly 15 hysteria-killing seconds. (Interestingly, a TV Executive on board, without a hint of irony, appreciated getting to see the TV coverage on board, because it "offered more facts.")

That the 24/7 news cycle is often torturously repetitive and often nearly content free is nothing new. But in this case, the news coverage was feeding back into the event which it was covering, directly countering the efforts of the crew to avoid causing the passengers unnecessary distress.

Think any of this occurred to the Powers That Be at Fox News?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Bad News for Duck's Side of the Oil Wager

NEW YORK (Sept. 23) - [All emph. add.] Crude oil prices dropped sharply Friday, the second straight day of declines, as traders welcomed news [...] that damage to refinery capacity in the Gulf could be less severe than originally feared. [...]

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said in an interview [...] that he would like to see the price of crude fall by about $20 a barrel below what it is now.
Prince Saud al-Faisal said there is no shortage of oil, and that prices should stabilize at $40 to $45 a barrel.

Saud said a big problem with energy markets is a lack of refineries in the United States and elsewhere. He noted that Saudi Arabia had sought to help build a refinery in the United States with no takers. It is building two refineries in Saudi Arabia, he said.

"We are adding barrels of oil on the market," Saud said. "It has no place to go."

- By MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ, The Associated Press

While Arabia has a lot less spare capacity than it likes to portray to the world, they're still the 800 lb. gorilla of oil production, (although not for much longer), and if they're committed to lowering prices, it's a long-shot to bet against them.

As a sidenote, it's a very smart move for Arabia to shift away from merely selling raw materials, and move into value-added products, i.e., exporting gasoline and other fuels instead of just crude oil.

High Security, Fijian Style

SUVA, Fiji (Sept. 23) - The wife of Fiji's president caught an intruder doing push-ups in a room at the couple's official residence, police told a court hearing Friday.

Police told the magistrate's court in the capital Suva that 25-year-old Iowane Tuinamasi leapt over a fence at the home of President Ratu Josefa Iloilo and broke into the house before turning on a radio and beginning a workout. [...]
[P]olice were investigating how Tuinamasi sidestepped security at the presidential home.

Tuinamasi pleaded guilty to breaking into the house and told the court he wanted to know what life was like "up there" in the presidential home.

- The Associated Press.

Must be nice to know that your worst problems are sightseekers, rather than assassins.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Third Wave Rolls On

( "The Third Wave" )

Here is a bit of what noted economist and NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman had to say back in '94, before he went insane:

...We still are not a country that is used to having a lot of international trade for a long time, such as Britain. Britain has three times as much international trade, relative to their economy, as we do, and they actually talk about it less than we do. They are used to the idea that, sure, a lot of output gets exported, and a lot of consumption gets imported, and they very rarely obsess about their competitive position.

What is true now is that, despite the increase in international trade, we are more than 70 percent a service economy. Very few services can be sold internationally because they are not transportable. Even quite a few of the goods we produce are not easily transportable. For example, at this point, while the great bulk of the TVs that are sold in the United States are from foreign-owned firms, nearly all of the picture tubes are made in the United States.

Picture tubes turn out to be something that are hard to ship internationally because they break, so there is a manufactured good that is not very tradable. And so, overall, in [1993] imports were about 11 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. A hundred years ago, they were about 8 percent.

The reason that we have the impression that it has increased by leaps and bounds is partly that there was a great collapse in international trade because of the two world wars and the depression. If you go back to when John F. Kennedy was president, we still only had about 4 percent imports, so we have sprung back, but in fact, we are not all that globalized, even now. [...]

Q: Will the U.S. be more dependent on trade in the future?

A: Over the last century, there have been two offsetting forces operating on international trade. On the one hand, transportation and communication costs have continued to fall so that the ability to ship goods around the world is much greater than it was. On the other hand, we've increasingly become a service economy and services remain, by and large, non-tradable.

Q: Why have we become more of a service economy?

A: Manufacturing has become less important for the same reason that agriculture earlier became less important. [Emph. add.] [...]
Productivity has grown in manufacturing, which means we need fewer and fewer workers and the prices get lower so we spend more and more of our income on the things we can't automate, which tend to be in the service sector.

The actual ratio of the output of manufacturing - the constant dollar output of manufacturing's share of the economy - has been almost exactly constant for the past four years ['90 - '93]. But the share of the value of the economy that originates from manufacturing is steadily declining, and that's all because of the higher productivity growth. That's true around the world.

If you look at any particular manufacturing industry, you discover that the international trade in that industry has grown, that the industry has been more finely divided into little slices of value added in different parts of the world, and you say, "Wow, globalization has increased by leaps and bounds." But then you look at the overall numbers and discover that the share of trade in the economy has not increased very much. The reason is that more and more, the economy is concerned with producing things that can't be traded.

In the long run, everything will be tradable. In the millennium, you will be able to get all of your services by slipping on your virtual reality helmet and have them delivered over whatever the future Internet is, right?

- Paul Krugman

How To Become A Victim

GALVESTON, Texas (Sept. 22) - More than 1.3 million residents in Texas and Louisiana were under orders to get out [of the path of Hurricane Rita, a monster storm with 170 mph winds].

The Category 5 storm weakened slightly Thursday morning, and forecasters said it could be down to a Category 3 -- meaning winds as high as 130 mph -- by the time it comes ashore late Friday or early Saturday.
[The U.S. mainland has never been hit by both a Category 4 and a Category 5 in the same season. Katrina at one point became a Category 5 storm, but weakened slightly to a Category 4 just before coming ashore.]

Forecasters predicted it would come ashore along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi, with up to 15 inches of rain in places. [...]

Galveston [is] already a virtual ghost town. [...]
The coastal city of 58,000 on an island 8 feet above sea level was nearly wiped off the map in 1900 when an unnamed hurricane killed between 6,000 and 12,000. It remains the nation's worst natural disaster.
City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge could reach 50 feet. Galveston is protected by a seawall that is only 17 feet tall.

Jennifer McDonald in Galveston planned to ride Rita out. She and her husband have enough food and water to last 10 days in their wooden house. If it gets really bad, the couple will take to the roof.
"If it goes, it goes," the 42-year-old nurse said of the house. "We're completely prepared."

By ALICIA A. CALDWELL, The Associated Press.


You're prepared to deal with a fifty foot storm surge, while 130 MPH winds tear down your home ?

It's simply another way of saying "I'm prepared to meet my Maker", while rolling the dice.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Allergic to Velvet

Frederick Turner says that the suicide bomber's true targets are the Velvet revolutionaries of today's emergent democracies:

Part of our difficulty in dealing with global terror directed against civilian populations is that we have not, I believe, understood what it was designed to attack. Some see it as a war between cultural blocs, others as a religious war against infidels, others as a traditionalist reaction to the social, economic, and cultural disruptions caused by globalism, others as a continuation of the liberation of oppressed peoples from colonial imperialism. There may be a grain of truth in some of these explanations, but the counter-examples to each of them are glaring.

For instance, the majority of deaths by terrorism in the last several years -- even including 9/11 and the second Intifada -- have been the result of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, perhaps even Arab-on-Arab violence, depending on what is counted. Thus we can rule out cultural and religious war as the prime motivation. Though one can at a stretch describe the Taliban as traditionalists opposing the corruptions of global market capitalism, al Qaeda is a quintessentially cosmopolitan, big-business financed, historicist, international intellectual movement, as globalist in its own way as Microsoft. As for the anti-colonialist explanation, it is hard to see how animist Sudanese farmers, Kashmiri Hindus, Sunni Kurds, Iraqi Shiites, Philippine Christians or Egyptian or Lebanese democrats, all of them targets of terrorism, could be considered colonial oppressors.

The history of warfare shows us that each new military power arises as the result of a new strategy or weapon, with a major socio-economic dimension, that effectively refutes the previous one. The disciplined citizen-hoplite infantryman of the Greek city-states answers and reverses the huge peasant armies of the Persian emperors. The plebeian Roman phalanx defeats the elite Spartan line. The Parthian cavalry archer wears out and turns back the Roman phalanx. The longbow brings down the armored knight. The swift low British man-o'-war defeats the galleon. The machine-gun stops the massed infantry attack invented by Marlborough and Bonaparte.

When the suicide bomber first emerged as the paradigm and core symbol of terrorism, it could be argued that it was exactly the weapon to counter the nuclear-armed modern democratic nation state (Israel in particular). The suicide bomb could not, by definition, be avenged or deterred; though it could not target the government, which could always democratically renew itself, it could target the population's trust in its government. Its target was, appropriately, the whole population, because in a democracy the whole population is the sovereign. The bomber could always be disavowed by his state bosses and protectors.

But as I have pointed out, the numbers of Israeli and Western dead as victims of terror are only a fraction of the total number. War is politics by other means. Why did suicide terror metastasize from Israel to the world? What is the basic political enemy of the global terrorist movement? What is it designed to attack? Though it would be tempting to say that the target is the democratic state, the evidence does not quite support it. Many existing democratic states were left alone, and coexisted with, for years before suicide terror emerged, and are so still.

I believe that the evidence points clearly to one target. Thirty years ago it looked as if the totalitarian state was solidly established, successful and immortal. Democratic capitalism had been stopped in its tracks. The nuclear-armed socialist dictatorship could not be attacked or defeated; it could at best be contained, and none of its incremental marginal conquests could be rolled back. Marvelously, however, a new strategy emerged, invented by the world's middle-class populations, that could bring down the totalitarian state: the velvet revolution. Totalitarian governments rely on elites to govern and control the people and defend themselves against outside ideas. Those elites must reproduce themselves, creating a property-owning educated class with great power but without the revolutionary ideology of their parents; and to remain economically viable the state must produce a skilled artisan class, like the shipbuilders of Gdansk, with the capacity to unionize. Out of these materials, generated by totalitarianism itself, comes the velvet revolution.

The velvet revolution (also named the orange revolution, the purple finger, the rose revolution, the cedar revolution) has swept the world. In different ways, nonviolent, non-ideological middle-class and skilled-worker mass movements have unseated tyrants and established democracies in an amazing range of countries: Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Bangladesh, South Korea, Indonesia, the Baltic states, Mexico, Serbia, Albania, Georgia, the Ukraine, the Philippines, Lebanon, even Palestine, all fell to the regimes of popular sovereignty. China nearly fell in 1989, with the Tiananmen protest, and will become a democracy some time in the next twenty years. If there is one defining event that characterizes the end of twentieth century political modernism, it is this one.

The suicide bomb, with the mass terrorism it epitomizes, is the weapon of choice against the velvet revolution. The target is not, as well-meaning critics of terrorism say, indiscriminate: it is exact and precise. The target is any population that might organize a velvet revolution, the potential sovereigns of a democratic state. It is people who are not ideological, who are willing to let others believe what they want, who want to make a living and be independent, and who want a say in their government. Even in Israel, where it was the citizens of an already-established democratic state that were being attacked, the true target, as we are now coming to understand after the death of Arafat, was the nascent democracy of Palestine. By killing Jews, Arafat could continue to oppress and defraud Palestinians.

Global terrorism is not a revolution, but an attempt to suppress a revolution. What is being defended by suicide terror is not Islam, not traditional moral culture, not the ethnic nation yearning to be free of the colonial oppressor, but the principle of totalitarian rule -- the sovereignty of the dictator or the ayatollah, promoted as national self-identity and independence, or as the will of God. It is the last gasp, historically, of the ancient system by which the huge majority of human beings were ruled since the Neolithic agricultural revolution.

Somehow this explanation just doesn't satisfy. For one, Osama Bin Laden was himself a member of the Saudi elite, and one who by nature should have identified with the totalitarian Saudi royal family, yet he struck out against them. Those founding members of the Muslim Brotherhood who masterminded the assassination of Anwar Sadat were likewise fighting against an authoritaritarian regime which in no way was in danger of devolving into a democratic government.

Turner's reasoning contains several contradictions. Muslim on Muslim violence does not preclude a cultural or religious origin to the conflicts, as it is the influence of Western cultural ideas on Muslims that has enraged the Islamicists and made those Muslims who may be suspected of having sympathy for or neutrality toward the West targets of their ideology. His statement is equivalent to saying that there was no religious or cultural component to the Northern Ireland strife or to the 100 Year War, as both these conflicts were Christian on Christian.

Secondly, he identifies the globalist nature of the Islamist terror network as a reason that the goals of their efforts cannot be explained by reactionary traditionalism, but in the last paragraph claims that it is a movement to defend that ancient tradition of totalitarian government which has ruled humanity since the outset of the Neolithic Age.

I would say that the simplest and the most obvious reason for the Islamicist terror movement is the correct reason. It is motivated by a warped interpretation of cultural and religious traditionalism in the Islamic mold. Turner would have us believe that the terrorists are fighting to defend an abstraction, namely Totalitarianism as a governing ethos. No doubt their vision is a totalitarian one, but in a specifically Islamic and Arabic form. They would not deploy their resources to defend post-Soviet crony communism in Ukraine or Cuba. As I have pointed out in a past critique of Turner, he is in the habit of making facile generalizations without much reflection.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Daily Duck welcomes Oroborous, aka Michael Herdegen

Regular readers of the DD and the BrothersJudd blog will recognize Michael's prolific and insightful commentary on a wide variety of topics. I am pleased that Michael has accepted my invitation to join our editorial staff at the Daily Duck, and hope that you enjoy his wit and prodigious knowledge of technology as much as I have.

Michael and I have an open bet on the price of oil. I have bet him that oil will hit $100/barrel by the end of 2006. Stay tuned for our debates on oil and other economic trends.

Holy Grail or Chimera ?

LIVERMORE, Calif. - (23 May 05) [All emph. add.] Ed Moses talks of the "grand challenge" that has consumed him for the past five years, comparing it to trying to hit the strike zone with a baseball from 350 miles away, or tossing a dime into a parking meter from 40 miles. [...]

In a building the size of a football stadium, engineers have assembled the framework for a network of 192 laser beams, each traveling 1,000 feet to converge simultaneously on a target the size of a pencil eraser.
The trip will take one-thousandth of a second during which the light's energy is amplified many billions of times to create a brief laser pulse [more powerful than] 1,000 times the electric generating power of the United States.
The goal is to create unimaginable heat - 180 million degrees Fahrenheit - and intense pressure from all directions on a BB-size hydrogen fuel pellet, compressing it to one-thirtieth of its size.
The result, the scientists hope, will be fusion ignition, so that more energy is released than is generated by the laser beams. [...]

When completed in 2008, the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, as the laser at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories is called, will [...] provide a platform for many experiments in high-energy and high-density physics, from learning more about the planets and stars to advancing the elusive hunt for fusion energy to generate electric power, Moses says.
"You have to think of this like the Hubble," he says, referring to the space telescope. "It's a place where you will see things and do things that you couldn't do anywhere else."

The government is investing $3.5 billion, and possibly several billion dollars more, in NIF for another reason: national security.
If NIF achieves fusion ignition, it will for the first time in a laboratory simulate the pressures and heat of a nuclear explosion, allowing nuclear weapons scientists to study the performance and readiness of the country's aging nuclear arsenal, without actually detonating a nuclear device. [...]
The NIF laser "is essential to assessing the potential performance of nuclear weapons," says Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. He says the experiments will help determine the effects of aging on warheads and help assure they will work as expected, should they be needed.

There have been other lasers, including a 10-beam Livermore project called Nova. NIF will produce 40 times to 60 times more energy. "It's the difference between a car and a jet engine," Moses says. [...]

The NIF program has had a decade of turbulent history marked by exhilarating successes and embarrassing setbacks, large cost overruns and charges by some critics that the project was oversold from the beginning to win initial support in Congress.
When the idea of a new, super laser first emerged in the early 1990s, the cost was put at less than $700 million. [...] Critics contend the price is now up to $5 billion when associated expenses such as developing a target capsule capable of achieving fusion ignition are included.
"If Congress knew it would cost $5 billion up front, would they ever have funded it? No way," maintains Christopher Paine, who [...] has been one of [NIF's] sharpest critics. [...]

The program's critics charge that Livermore officials lowballed NIF's capabilities and potential cost from the beginning. When Congress was sold on NIF's importance because of its ability to simulate a nuclear explosion, scientists were at best only half certain fusion ignition could be accomplished, NIF program supporters acknowledge today.
Three years after NIF construction began, congressional auditors concluded in a 2000 report, "Congress cannot know with assurance just how much NIF will cost ... what impact NIF will have on the overall nuclear weapons program, or how long it will take to complete." [...]

That report and others were prompted by discovery in late 1999 that engineers had encountered a serious problem installing the laser's optics [...] - they could not keep the optics free of dust. [...]
"The problem was, we had people doing this that did not appreciate the scale of what they were attempting to do," says Moses, a laser engineer and longtime senior manager at Livermore, who was brought in to lead the NIF program in late 1999. Those who had the vision of NIF found it was more complicated when it came to actually building it, he said. [...]

By 2003, the dust issue was solved by building a massive clean room and installing the optics in modular dust-free units. Engineers found new ways to produce the thousands of highly polished pieces of laser glass. A faster way was found to grow high-quality crystals that convert the beams to ultraviolet just before they strike the target.

And with four of the planned 192 beams operating, new tests suggested strongly that when the system was fully operating, enough energy would be produced to (theoretically, at least) achieve ignition.

Last year, however, a new complication emerged - not over the laser but the pea-size pellet that contains the hydrogen fuel that will be ignited by the lasers to achieve fusion ignition. Could the pellet be manufactured to the required specifications?
Once its shell was to be made of plastic, but that idea was abandoned. Now the choice is beryllium, a metallic element that can withstand intense heat, is molecularly stable and is a good conductor.
It still is uncertain whether beryllium can be machined to specification, according to technicians who have monitored the program. Last year Congress directed another outside review to report how the development of a beryllium target might affect NIF's timetable.

Like previous challenges in the project's history, the beryllium issue will be resolved, [Moses believes].

While the massive laser may one day have a broad range of scientific uses - some not even envisioned by today's scientists - the immediate focus remains assuring the reliability of the nation's nuclear arsenal without actually testing the weapons. [...]

By H. JOSEF HEBERT, Associated Press Writer

While I have absolute confidence that humans will someday generate most of our electricity with fusion, and that the U.S. are the leading candidate to achieve the breakthrough, it must be noted that we've been pursuing commercial civilian fusion for going on fifty years now, with only modest success to date.

However, as the article points out, many problems have been encountered in trying to build this "Hubble" of lasers, and all but one have been solved.
Further, it should be pointed out that the Hubble Space Telescope itself was far from problem free; at one point it wasn't certain that it could be successfully built, and after it was launched and had successfully achieved orbit, it was discovered that the optics STILL weren't right, necessitating an additional half-billion-dollar shuttle flight dedicated to fixing Hubble in orbit - which was in itself a pioneering feat of engineering.

The very bottom line is that spending a mere $ 5 billion over fifteen years, to acquire a national treasure like the NIF promises to be, is not only a very smart bet, it's also essentially gambling with pocket change.
Between 1993, and 2008 (when the NIF is scheduled to be completed), the total aggregated U.S. GNP will be on the order of $ 150 trillion, in nominal dollars.
$ 5 billion is 1/30,000th of $ 150 trillion, or the equivalent of the average American household spending $ 2, less than the cost of a Starbucks frappuccino.
If the NIF has even a one out of a hundred chance of leading to commercial fusion, then it's money overwhelmingly well spent.
In fact, even ten billion dollars would be a bargain.